No-one likes a troll. And, given the choice, members of most online communities would rather commenters were held to account for their inane witterings and even outright abuse. So plugins like Facebook Comments, which tie your reactions to your real identity via Facebook, encourage a more grown-up approach to online debate and should be welcomed. But there is a downside to the shift from the anonymous, search-driven free-for-all internet of the last decade to a more accountable, social experience, and it’s all down to Facebook’s insistence on tracking our every move, even when we’re logged out of the network.
The proliferation of persistent virtual personas tied to our real-life identities, as it silences the trolls, seems also to be shutting down a lot of the more exciting discussion. People, terrified of censure, or worse, from their bosses, are becoming reluctant not just to comment on, but even to visit some websites. Facebook in particular, forever pushing the boundaries of privacy, is actively tracking your every move online and reporting much of it back to your friends.
The chilling effect of this perpetual surveillance on the more colourful internet subcultures is only just becoming apparent. Take the Eye Scene, a message board for enthusiasts of myopia: from full-blown girls-in-glasses fetishists to more genteel connoisseurs of the contact lens. The Eye Scene is a brilliant example of a subculture only the internet could have nurtured. (And one in which I take particular personal interest, as someone extremely short-sighted. Without my glasses I struggle to read the newspaper unless it’s five to six inches from my face.)
In the words of one regular Eye Scene poster, based in San Francisco, “the Eye Scene could never have existed without the internet.” But there’s trouble in this curious sort of paradise. The end is in sight – even for its most myopic members – because the board’s owner has announced he is discontinuing support for the site after some fifteen years as its guardian. He refuses to be drawn on the reason, but some posters have speculated that declining engagement and a deterioration in the quality of posts might be to blame.
Over the past decade and a half, the Eye Scene’s community has developed a language as complex and impenetrable to the layman as anything on 4chan. There are “power rings”, those white arcs near the edge of the lens, whose concentration, once the index of the lens has been taken into account, can indicate prescription strength. “Cut-in” refers to the odd visual effect a high prescription lens can produce whereby the space around a person’s head can be seen at the corners of the lens.
There’s “double-digit” myopia, spoken of in the same way one might talk about double-D breasts on a swimsuit model. And the phenomenon of “GOC”, or “glasses over contacts”, is lovingly documented in long threads. “Some people get absolutely hooked on GOC,” says my contact, whom we’ll call Eric. “They wear contacts to give themselves myopia and then wear glasses full-time to correct it.”
It’s sometimes a slightly comical community. But its existence is a tribute to the extraordinary power of the internet to unite people who might otherwise have felt marginalised or peculiar. “One thing I’ve noticed,” says Eric, “Is how amazed and grateful people are to discover that there are others with the same hobby. Sure, we might all have wasted a lot of time posting to those boards, but it was a relief to discover that my fetish isn’t remotely as rare as I thought it was.”
Things started to go wrong at the Eye Scene a year or so ago. Posts became “little more than clutches of links to photography sharing websites and celebrity sighting blogs” and the more charming and eccentric contributions — like men unconvincingly posing as young girls getting their first pair of glasses — started to dry up. “You used to get tremendous numbers of people posing as implausibly myopic women,” says Eric. “Medically impossible rapid progressions of myopia were a dead giveaway. But they got the more gullible regulars excited.”
Even the previously vocal gay community, on a predominantly heterosexual site, seems to be abandoning it. Could this be because they fear humiliation, should their enthusiasm be discovered and publicised? Eric thinks so. “I don’t visit that often any more, but when I do, I notice how much more cautious people are about what they post. It used to be confessionals and personal stories. Now it’s just links to photos of movie stars and idle speculation about their vision.” (Notwithstanding his earlier remarks, Eric explains, with some enthusiasm, that Jake Gyllenhaal “has only ever been photographed with his coke bottles on his head, which implies a massive prescription”.)
Where the internet once offered a safe harbour for the most outré behaviours and interests, the social revolution is killing off much of the vibrancy and diversity of the web. The suffocating effect of Twitter and the tyranny of majority opinion — even if only, in practice, the liberal mob — may leave no room for the great internet eccentrics of the Google-dominated era. When you learn that Facebook, even when you’re logged out, is keeping track of the sites you visit, it stands to reason that you’ll be that bit more hesitant about visiting special interest destinations.
That certainly seems to be the case for Eye Scene posters, who are crestfallen at the news that the site is to close. The most likely result, according to Eric, is that the community will shatter and disappear into even more specialised Tumblr blogs and behind password-protected discussion groups.
Then again, that might serve them even better. As Eric points out, even within the Eye Scene there are people who don’t fit in. “Those people who are keen on plus,” he cites as an example, meaning posters who like pictures of positive dioptre prescriptions. “Bit of a minority pursuit.”